Friday, January 11, 2013

Book Pick: 2012

The previous year was kind of a busy one for me. I didn't nearly get around to reading all the books that popped up on my radar during the previous 12 months. A lot of it had to do with finishing my MA, which saw me still reading research-related material well after having handed in my thesis. It takes a while to get off the bandwagon after all that intense dedication. And it doesn't help that the more you research, the more interesting it gets.

Other things also prohibited just kicking back with a book and a cup of coffee. Work, which these days consists of several projects in the works, a novel, short story ideas that won't leave me the hell alone, and the inevitable work (in my case, creative and academic proofreading) that needs to be done so your electricity doesn't get cut or, god forbid, your internet connection gets the chop.

Nevertheless, one book popped into my personal stratosphere, and it's one that, in terms of size, content and quality, goes some in making up for the other no-doubt noteworthy books that passed me by.

The Weird: A Compendium of Dark and Strange Stories (eds. Anne and Jeff Vandermeer, Tor Books) is a 50,000-word reprint anthology covering 100 years of Weird fiction. The term "weird" is often one met by confusion when people ask me what kind of fiction I like to read. "Weird as in, how?" is usually the response. "No, just Weird fiction. It's a type of fiction."

Confused expression.

For anyone who remains confused about what Weird fiction is, I highly recommend you get your hands on a copy of Ann and Jeff Vandermeer's anthology. The stories follow the genre through from its early beginnings circa 1908 to the recent present, 2010. The stylistic changes that run throughout the stories collected within provide a fascinating look at themes that have disconcerted and unsettled us through the course of a century. Of particular interest to my own research is how changes in language reflect our anxieties and fears, which is on glorious display here throughout the 101 collected stories.

Names such as Neil Gaimain, China Mieville, Margo Lanagan, Joyce Carol Oates and Stephen King will attract readers who have come to the genre (perhaps through the fork in the road  labelled 'horror') fairly recently.

However, what elevates the collection (in my mind) to something that sets the benchmark for fiction of this kind is that, together with the more well-known names of the Weird -- which also include the likes of H.P. Lovecraft, Robert Aickman, M.R. James, F. Marion Crawford, Algernon Blackwood and Clark Ashton Smith -- the collection also celebrates the unsung heroes (at least, in the mainstream English reading market) of Weird tales: Jean Ray, Hagiwara Sakutoro, Haruki Murakami, Alfred Kubin, Hanns Heinz Ewers, Stefan Grabinski, and many others.

In addition, the editors have sourced work from authors who are perhaps better known for writing work that fit (or are labelled as) other genres: George R.R. Martin, Octavia Butler, William Gibson and John Shirley, Joanna Russ, Jorge Luis Borges and Franz Kafka, to name but a few.

As a type of fiction, the Weird is hard to define, simply because different things get under people's skins for different reasons; this is part of what makes a collection like this fascinating. From cultural, sociological, religious and psychoanalytical perspectives, the 750 000-odd words collected in The Weird provides new insight into that which arguably scares us all the most - The Thing Within.

Go on and open it; you may like what you find, you may not. But one thing is certain: if you take note of what happens along the way, you may just find the answers to why you hesitate to turn off the lights at night. Whether that will be of comfort ... that remains entirely up to you.

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